Village needs enforcement, not new code provisions

Greenport Trustee Chris Kempner is right to be worried about the safety of residents living in basement apartments and firefighters who might have to respond to a blaze in a place that might be hard to get in and out of.

It’s no secret that the village has more than a few basement apartments where absentee landlords have allowed overcrowded conditions. Some may have overloaded electrical outlets. Immigrant workers, who are the backbone of our agricultural economy, are often forced to share substandard living space because of their low wages.

Trustee Michael Osinski is worried, too. He is correct when he points out that the workers — many of whom would rather not attract the attention of immigration officials — often feel they can’t complain about the their unsafe housing.

For those and other reasons, the idea of amending the village code to ban basement apartments may sound like a good idea. But it probably would work about as well as Prohibition did at stopping people from drinking.

If there’s a demand for very cheap housing — even if it’s illegal — landlords will strive to make a buck by meeting it. And if existing rules covering occupancy levels, sanitary conditions and electrical systems can’t be enforced effectively, how will banning apartments solve those problems?

Enforcement is the issue, not so much the existence of basement apartments, and another law on the books won’t achieve the goal these trustees have in mind. Landlords renting basement spaces aren’t about to give up their incomes. Nor are their tenants about to step forward and acknowledge the circumstances under which they live.

Mary Bess Phillips has made a good suggestion: The existing village code should be tweaked to provide a process that would allow the village to inspect rental apartments. Legally, the village can’t do that without an owner’s permission. But if owners had to agree to inspections in order to obtain permits for their accessory apartments, better enforcement might follow.

Inspections are the only means to assure that residents aren’t living in unsafe conditions that threaten their lives and the lives of emergency responders.

Let’s not wait until a serious fire erupts in one of these overcrowded, unsafe apartments to deal with a problem we all know exists.